Insights from Anthropology- Tribal Leaders and CEOs

When Europeans started exploring world, they came in conflict with various tribes in different parts of globe. This conflict of tribal with Europeans explorers cum conquerors has been studied extensively by historians and social anthropologists.

Europeans started grabbing land of tribal where they had lived for centuries. Tribal who fought with their traditional weapons like spear, axe, bow & arrows were no match to firearms of Europeans, many could not understand how a rifle worked.

Problem of losing their land and inability to fight Europeans made tribal desperately look for a leader who could make firearms ineffective and make Europeans disappear from their land. There was desire to return to earlier era and they were looking for a leader who could make that happen.

Soon leaders emerged who promised tribal that they could get rid of Europeans, some even claimed that they possessed supernatural powers, which will convert bullets into water or turn guns into wood. This pattern could be seen in tribes across world.

In India, the Mundas rose against British and Indians zamindars & money lenders under leadership of Birsa Munda. Birsa assured them that he possessed power to convert bullets into water and rifles into wooden sticks.


The Oraons under leadership of Jatra Oraon started Tana Bhagat movement, which consisted of internal reforms ( giving up non vegeterain food, alcohol) at the same time resisting intrusion of outsiders. Santhals similarly revolted against British under Murmu brothers.

In “Dark Continent” of Africa, the Xhosas and Zulus fought against Europeans to save their lands.The Xhosa prophet-chief Maqana Nxele promised to turn bullets into water. In Tanzania, tribal under leadership of Kinjikitile “Bokero” Ngwale rose against Germans. Ngwale gave his followers war medicine that would turn German bullets into water. This “war medicine” was in fact water (maji in Swahili) mixed with castor oil and millet seeds. The revolt was called as Maji Maji revolt.


In New Zealand, Maoris fought against British under leadership of Hone Heke, while in Northern America, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (a self-styled prophet) led Native Americans against white settlers.


Though tribal fought bravely, believing that charisma and magic of their leaders will work, they were defeated by Europeans. Magic of converting bullets into water did not work.

These learning from Anthropology can be applied to corporate world. Basic human nature remains same- under adverse conditions they look for a leader who promises them former glory or better conditions. Even in political world people put faith in charismatic leaders to take them out of adverse conditions ex. Germans believed that Hitler will restore pride of Germany which was badly battered by recession.

Employees of loss making companies are ready to believe that a charismatic CEO will take them out of current situation and restore former glory. The CEO uses tools like vision, strategy, innovative products, reduction of staff, getting rid of loss making products and units, financial restructuring etc. to make employees believe that CEO has magical powers. In some cases it works, but in most of the cases magic does not work.


Some cases where magic worked are Steve Jobs in his 2nd inning with Apple, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler and Doug Conant at Campbell soup. But in most of the cases either magic does not work or it may show success in initial stage, but soon company is back in red or worse, makes even greater loss.


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